The thing was ancient, a Grumman amphibian that could have been flying before he was born. Chipped paint, worn tyres, oil-streaked engine cowlings...
It was parked at the top of the ramp, half boat, half museum exhibit. It wasn't the flight that worried him. He'd survived flying coffins in his time. It was the grey feeling in his gut - as grey as the slate-coloured sky, as grey as the sluggish sea that licked and sucked at the ramp like oil.
The sullen clouds were spoiling for a storm. A freshening wind tugged at the brightly coloured pennants on the brightly painted shed that was the terminal. The other passengers were boarding. Four others only. Was it some kind of charter flight?
He fell in behind the tall, long-haired woman, eyes dropping to the movement of her hips as she stepped over the raised door-sill into the hull. She was in superb shape for her age. Nature had blessed her with a perfect rear - or perfect aerobics instructor. She must have been fifty but had the body and skin most thirty-year-olds would have killed for.
He stooped through the door himself, hand cradling the shoulder-bag he used as his camera-case.
The interior of the plane was unlined except for a strip at window-level. He was told where to sit and hunched in the excuse for a seat, feet straddling two webbing covered boxes marked 'Great Barrier Island Store'.
Through the door space in the bulkhead, he could see into the cockpit. Worn panels, primitive controls - like the cabin of a vintage truck.
One prop kicked, then another. The cabin shuddered, drummed with noise. Connor liked machines and this veteran example was intriguing. You got around on video shoots and he'd flown in everything from Iroquois to C-130s. But this was something new. So why wasn't he enjoying it?
It wasn't the grey sky or the flight across the gulf. It wasn't the assignment, which was lucrative enough. Something was wrong. For no firm reason, instinct told him to get out of the crate while he could. He pushed the feeling down. He was starting to imagine things.
Run-up over, they trundled down the ramp. Water thumped and sloshed against the hull. Through the flecked window, Waitemata harbour was a smudge. Now, the wing was the only reality, dipping and dunking its float.
The whine of the engines changed. The pilot's hand moved from the throttles to check twin, red-handled levers. Prop pitch? Mixture? Carb heat? Connor wasn't sure.
The altimeter was set on zero? Odd. Of course, sea level. That made adjustment simple. He looked back along the double row of mostly empty seats. Just five passengers on a run that stopped at Barrier Island - a place he'd been told was very popular? Made no sense.
He frowned and pulled out the brochure - the brochure for a resort no travel-agent knew. Thick glossy stock. Four-colour photographs. It looked convincing enough... but his stomach told him he shouldn't have come.
He went over it again. The unexpected client with the super-heavyweight-class body. The man, who said his name was Blore, had the broad, deep-toned face of an islander and his intimidating bulk made Connor's Sydney office seem a cupboard. As he sat, his thighs stretched his suit-pants like sausage skins. The chair creaked but held, though the wood frame parted slightly on one side, exposing twin dowels.
'It's a playground for the rich.' The voice from the huge frame was oddly soft. '...bit north of Barrier Island. Know the spot?'
'Can't place it.'
'Fifty miles from Auckland - last stop before Valparaiso.' The man aired a crescent of amalgam to confirm his little joke. 'There are smaller islands in the group, some of them private, like ours. Trouble is, we're the world's best kept secret.' He placed the brochure on the table between them. 'We're looking at several ideas for promotions. But first thing's a video for the travel trade.'
Connor picked the brochure up. Eight pages of tempting views. Delicate ferns beside a stream, a forest glade. 'Those pines indigenous?'
'No. The place used to be covered with Kauri. Superb wood. Slow growing, though, like your Huon pine in Tasmania. The sealers and whalers logged it for sailing ships. Now a lot of islands are bare except where they've planted pines. Great Barrier's mostly State forest.'
'Warmer than Auckland. But you get big storms out there.'
Connor glanced at the cover again. It showed a sheer rock peak of grey-brown stone projecting from a sparkling sea. The caption proclaimed: 'T55 - Hedonist's Hideaway'.
'Funny name for a resort.'
The man smiled but said nothing.
'You've done a good job on the brochure but it still looks pretty remote.'
'That's its charm.'
'Who put you onto me?'
'Fellow at VideoFac called Brian. Said you'd handle the whole project.'
The name meant nothing but Connor continued. Perhaps the man had got the name wrong. 'That's right. Concept to dubs. I hire in people and facilities, though I've an off-line set-up here.' He pointed to the editing suite beyond the sloping glass window of the sound booth.
The man nodded, not that interested.
'What money are we talking?'
'Our budget's pretty flexible. But before we discuss that in detail, we need to brief you fully on the island - let you talk to our people, look around...'
'Without seeing my reel?'
'I'm sure it's good. Why not bring it with you? We could fly you there this Wednesday. Expenses paid, of course.'
'Sorry. Got an S.R.A. job Wednesday. They've scheduled special trains and we'll have our arses hanging out. Twelve-hour-day with fourteen set-ups. Could manage it next week.'
Blore rubbed his teeth with his thumb. 'Bit of a problem there. The island staff's on holiday next week. It really has to be this Wednesday.'
'Sorry about that.'
'Pity.' He jacked himself out of the chair and the arms creaked like a cane lounge in a slimming club. His bulk filled the room. 'Great shame. Great shame.' He fumbled for a business card. 'Well, if something loosens up...'
'I'll let you know.'
'Good.' He extended his hand and Connor's knuckles became painfully acquainted.
Something loosened up, all right. The SRA shoot was cancelled. No explanation. Three days' shooting - canned. He tried to talk it over with Tess.
She shrugged, 'Coincidence, that's all. Jobs get stopped.'
'They normally say why.'
'David, honestly... ' Her arch look. She was eight years older and he never felt her equal. She gave the impression to others that she'd married him to acquire a pet. At first he'd found that amusing but it wasn't any more.
She chased a last mung bean around her plate. 'It's probably internal politics. Why be so suspicious?'
The word was one of her weapons. He suspected she was seeing someone else, although, a year ago, she'd denied it. Confronting her had soured things further. Now she rubbed it in - sure of her independence, attractiveness, wit, of a mind faster than his that knew how to belittle him, tease. For a year, she'd gone through the motions, playing the game of affection too well - satirically, never letting up. Their marriage was becoming a facade.
She said, 'If you distrust absolutely everything you'll end up sitting in a corner with your knees under your chin. And I'll visit you one a month on Fridays.'
This was another of her themes that he was too fearful to contend. She knew him well - and where to insert the knife.
He let her comment slide. Reacting made things worse. 'He's throwing around free tickets and didn't even ask to see my stuff.'
'He's probably not used to Sydney and doesn't know how things work here.'
'How'd he get on to me anyway?'
'You said he asked someone at the video place...'
'There is no Brian at VideoFac.'
'But that doesn't prove anything. He got the name wrong, probably. People are hopeless with names.' She moved behind his chair and started kneading his shoulders with firm hands. That was where the stress started, she said - forehead, muscles behind the neck, between the shoulder-blades. She was always telling him to relax, aware it made him tense. 'Cautious Connor. What are you worried about? Someone offers you a job and you think it's a conspiracy.'
'It fits too well. Smells like a con.' He knew it sounded lame, defensive.
'David, it's a job. Why not take it? You can certainly use the money. It's been a while since you've had anything come good.' She'd said 'you', not 'we' - another subtle dig. Her chiropractic practice made more most weeks than he billed in a month and she never lost a chance to emphasize her success.
'So you think my imagination's working overtime?'
'It's on a twenty-four-hour shift!' She kissed the top of his head as one might kiss a small child. 'Got to go.'
'Will you be late?'
'Could be. Bye.' She reached the door, looked back condescendingly. 'Do try to understand that life... is for living.'
The twin radials roared as the relic slapped its way across the bay. They still hadn't cleared the water. Perhaps they were going to surf there.
The hull stopped strumming beneath him. The spray, streaming across the window, cleared. They'd lifted off - boat imitating bird. Unexpectedly, the wing-float swung up and out, its strut nestling into a groove under the wing as it became a wing-pod.
Ahead, the co-pilot was winding a crank with a shaft that went vertically into the bilge. Wheels? Trim? Everything about this flight was odd.
The needle inched around the altimeter as the chop below became a pattern. The fuselage was straining every rivet, despite the shallow rate of climb. The plane lurched in an air pocket and the wing above his window flexed then came back to true, the float on the end of it shuddering. He hadn't seen the big man again. He'd rung to say he could make it Wednesday and had asked again about the budget. The man named double the sum he'd expected - enough fat for a full crew plus air-fares. The thing sounded like a windfall.
His tickets arrived express-courier. It hadn't been the best of mornings. He'd been depressed about a wife he wanted physically but didn't trust and about a young video technician who longed to make docos for TV - a young man, now thirty-five, with a home-based studio that ground out corporate videos. A man who'd need a crippling overdraft to buy the latest editing gear if he intended to keep up with the industry. It was crunch time. Get-with-it time or get left.
He'd wished he could rewind the last few years, stop-frame a few mistakes, cut sequences and rewrite the ending with a positive, up-beat slant. Tess was right, of course. He was stale. And, for years, he'd coasted on hope. Something had to change. Something soon. Meanwhile, he had a job. The trip would do him good. Through grey stratus, watery sun cast a glimmer on the sea below. A tip of rock, partly covered with scrub, vanished as the wing-pod became a float. Below, tiny islands studded the sea, some no more than jagged knobs that rose abruptly from the water, surrounded by a frill of white foam, their peaks covered by tenacious shrubs and trees.
The smaller islands became a huge one, impossibly green, with wooded lower slopes and peaks receding into mist. By an inlet that formed a harbour, a meadow sloped to the bay.
They were coming in to land. The hull beneath him skimmed the water, kissed it, drummed along the tops of the crests then settled deep, pushing a steep wash from the bow. In seconds, the water had slowed them to a drift and they were floating in the calm of the bay. The antiquated engines were throttled back to a chug as they headed toward a shallow beach. The co-pilot was winding the crank. It had to be wheels. The side floats joined the wings again as they trundled half onto dry sand.
There were fifteen minutes of bustle as boxes were handed out on the beach. More freight came out of a hatch on top of the nose. Milk-run over, the plane waddled back into the sea and taxied to its take-off point. So much for Great Barrier Island. Next and last stop - T55.
He glanced behind him, relieved to find he was not alone. The four others were still aboard - two men and two women. He felt better. But not much.